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How to Become a Forensic Nurse

Keith Carlson, BSN, RN, NC-BC
Updated January 11, 2023
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Forensic nurses care for survivors of assault and abuse, and they collaborate closely with law enforcement. Learn more about this important nursing specialty.
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Forensic nurses provide care to patients who are survivors of abuse, molestation, or assault. This nursing specialty involves collecting evidence, providing emotional support, and collaborating with law enforcement.

Find out how to become a forensic nurse, including the nursing degree required, certification, work settings, and other details of a career as a forensic nurse.

How Long to Become

2-3 years

Degree Required



Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner

What Is a Forensic Nurse?

Forensic nurses provide care and advocacy for patients who have experienced abuse or assault. They collaborate closely with law enforcement by performing detailed physical examinations and collecting evidence. They also provide emotional and psychological support to the patient.

Becoming a forensic nurse opens the door to a nursing career that helps to solve crimes and seek justice.

Forensic nurses also work alongside medical examiners, pathologists, or coroners to identify cause of death, and they accurately document legal and medical information.

They may work in rape crisis centers, hospitals, coroner’s and medical examiner’s offices, prisons and jails, and psychiatric hospitals. Forensic nurses may also respond to disasters and community emergencies.

The work of the forensic nurse calls for critical thinking skills, physical assessment, compassion, attention to detail, and good communication skills. An understanding of law enforcement and the legal system are also important in forensic nursing.

Steps to Becoming a Forensic Nurse

You need an associate degree in nursing (ADN) or a bachelor of science in nursing (BSN) to become any type of licensed registered nurse (RN).

Some employers and positions may require forensic nursing certification and experience, but some may hire RNs with clinical medical-surgical experience (med-surg) and provide on-the-job training.

  1. 1

    Earn an ADN or BSN degree.

    There are different types of BSN programs. A traditional BSN is a four-year degree where students develop a foundation in nursing care, anatomy and physiology, nursing informatics, and other subjects.

    Nurses with ADNs can enter RN-to-BSN degree bridge programs. These programs allow students to transfer many ADN credits, and students can often graduate with a BSN in 12-18 months.

    Those with bachelor’s degrees in non-nursing fields can enroll inaccelerated BSN programs, adding nursing care, nursing theory, and other subjects to their previous knowledge.

  2. 2

    Pass the National Council Licensure Exam (NCLEX) to receive RN licensure.

    Passing the NCLEX is necessary in becoming a forensic nurse. Every nursing program graduate who wants to earn an RN license must pass the NCLEX exam. State boards of nursing use the exam to determine if candidates qualify for nursing licensure.

  3. 3

    Gain Experience in forensic nursing.

    A big part of how to become a forensic nurse is clinical nursing experience. Forensic nurses need strong assessment and communication skills. Work on a medical-surgical floor can provide a good clinical background. Psychiatric mental health and pediatric nursing are also excellent places to gain experience. A nurse with solid experience, a strong resume, an interest in forensics, and networking skills can find an entry-level forensic nursing position. Mastering interviewing skills for nursing jobs can also help.

  4. 4

    Consider becoming a certified forensic nurse.

    Nurses can validate their knowledge, experience, and professional dedication by earning specialty certification. To become a certified forensic nurse, the International Association of Forensic Nurses (IAFN) offers two tracks:

    • Certified Adult/Adolescent sexual assault nurse examiner (SANE-A) focuses on adult and adolescent patients. SANE-A training covers forensic evidence collection, crisis intervention, sexually transmitted infections testing, drug testing, and emergency contraception.
    • Certified Pediatric sexual assault nurse examiner (SANE-P) focuses on pediatric patients. SANE-P nurses receive training in forensic examination, photography, and procedures for providing court testimony.

    To sit for either exam through the American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC), the nurse applicant must meet the following eligibility requirements:

    • Complete a SANE training course that meets IAFN SANE education guidelines.
    • Receive a minimum of 40 hours of SANE training.
    • Complete a preceptorship that meets IAFN SANE education guidelines.
    • Accumulate at least 300 hours of SANE-related practice in the last three years.
    • Read the certification handbook.
    • Complete and submit the application.

    The American Institute of Health Care Professionals, Inc. (AIHCP) offers a certification program for RNs and nurse practitioners specializing in forensic nursing practice. The AIHCP certification focuses on many aspects of forensic nursing, including forensic pathology. Successful completion allows the certified nurse to use the credentials FN-CSp.

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Forensic Nurse Education

Becoming a forensic nurse first requires earning a nursing degree, often an ADN or a BSN. A master of science in nursing (MSN) can be pursued if the nurse would like to advance to greater independence and increased earning power.

ADN Degree

An ADN is the shortest pathway to becoming a forensic nurse. With 2-3 years of community college education, a nurse can graduate, pass the NCLEX, receive a nursing license, and pursue a forensic nursing position.

This degree is best suited for those who would like to enter the nursing workforce with a college degree as quickly as possible. An ADN is the minimum degree needed to sit for the NCLEX. Some employers may prefer or require candidates with BSNs, while others hire qualified ADNs.

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    Common Admission Requirements

    GED certificate or high school diploma; GPA of 2.0 or higher; completion of high school math, biology, chemistry, English, world languages, and humanities; ACT or SAT scores; completed application and transcripts

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    Program Curriculum

    Introduction to the nursing profession; professionalism in nursing; health assessment; microbiology and immunology; medical-surgical nursing; pediatric nursing; maternal-newborn nursing

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    Time to Complete

    Two years

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    Skills Learned

    Physical assessment; therapeutic and professional communication; critical thinking; organization; hands-on nursing skills

BSN Degree

The BSN degree is the most commonly held nursing degree for nurses who would like to work in acute care.

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    Admission Requirements

    High school diploma or GED certificate; high school and/or college transcripts; resume or curriculum vitae; SAT or ACT scores; prior completion of microbiology, anatomy and physiology, statistics, and chemistry; at least a 2.5 GPA

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    Program Curriculum

    Anatomy and physiology; community health nursing; pharmacology; leadership and management; nursing informatics; research and statistics; pathophysiology; psychology; clinical and lab components

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    Time to Complete

    Four years on average

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    Skills Learned

    Physical assessment; therapeutic and professional communication; critical thinking; organization; practical nursing skills; leadership and management; evaluation of scientific research

MSN Degree

A master’s degree in forensic nursing provides nurses with more career possibilities, including independent practice in states that allow autonomous advanced practice nursing practice. The MSN is the minimum degree to become an advanced practice registered nurse (APRN). It is best for nurses who would like to pursue greater specialization, independence, and clinical responsibility.

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    Common Admission Requirements

    BSN degree, unless enrolled in an RN-to-MSN bridge program

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    Program Curriculum

    Advanced pharmacology; advanced pathophysiology; forensic nursing; legal and ethical issues in nursing; advanced corrections; theory and research; advanced physical assessment; diverse populations; practicum or capstone experience

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    Time to Complete

    2-3 years

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    Skills Learned

    Advanced physical assessment and forensic examination; legal concepts in nursing and forensics

Forensic Nurse Licensure and Certification

Becoming a forensic nurse requires licensure as either an RN or APRN. Once a nurse has passed a licensing exam, continuing education requirements are regulated by the board of nursing of each state.

Certification in forensic nursing can help with career advancement, but the nurse should note they need significant forensic experience to sit for the certification exam.

The IAFN offers two certification tracks:

  • SANE-A focusing on adult and adolescent patients
  • SANE-P focusing on pediatric patients

To sit for either exam through the ANCC, the nurse applicant must meet the following eligibility requirements:

  • Complete a SANE training course according to SANE guidelines.
  • Undergo 40 hours of SANE training.
  • Complete a SANE preceptorship experience.
  • Accumulate a minimum of 300 hours of SANE-related practice.
  • Submit completed application.

Working as a Forensic Nurse

SANE-A nurses most often work with patients in the emergency department, although rape crisis centers are also a common setting. They conduct sexual assault examinations and collect evidence from adult and adolescent survivors of rape and molestation. SANE-P nurses focus on pediatric patients and often work in the emergency department too. SANE-P nurses receive training in forensic examination, photography, and procedures for providing court testimony.

Forensic nurses also work in settings like coroner’s and medical examiner’s offices, corrections facilities, and psychiatric hospitals. Forensic nurses may need to respond to mass disasters or community crisis situations.

A nurse’s clinical experience and resume determine their ability to find a position and become a forensic nurse. Skills in networking, the job search process, and interviewing are also factors. According to ZipRecruiter, the average annual salary for a forensic nurse is $72,550 as of July 2022. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that registered nurses earn a median annual wage of $77,600 or $37.31 per hour, with 6% projected job growth between 2021 and 2031.

Frequently Asked Questions About Becoming a Forensic Nurse

question-mark-circleIs forensic nursing in demand?

Forensic nursing is an emerging and growing field. In 1992, a group of 72 nurses formed The International Association of Forensic Nurses. Today the organization boasts 6,000 members and 30 global chapters.

question-mark-circleWhat experience do you need to be a forensic nurse?

Forensic nurses need superb assessment and communication skills. Medical-surgical nursing offers solid clinical experience for nurses interested in forensics. Psychiatric mental health and pediatric nursing care are also good preparation.

question-mark-circleIs forensic nursing a good career?

For nurses with an interest in providing compassionate support to patients who have experienced trauma, rape, or molestation, forensics could be a good career choice. Forensic nurses also need to demonstrate great attention to detail and excellent skills in communication, collaboration, and physical assessment.

ZipRecruiter reports that the average salary for a forensic nurse is $72,550 as of July 2022.

question-mark-circleDo forensic nurses go to crime scenes?

Some forensic nurses may be called to crime scenes. They may respond to mass disasters or community crises.

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